If I had to define Christmastime in one word it would be light. The light that illuminates the streets, that shines in the store windows, that decorates trees and balconies; the light in the cribs and in the heart of every child waiting for Santa Claus. For many it signifies the giving of gifts, a time for vacation and taking a break from work or study. For others, of course, it means celebrating the birth of Jesus. Over the years, many have wanted to attach their own meaning to this particular time of the year.
Christmas entered the Christian calendar many years after the birth of Christ, in 345 A.D., during the reign of Emperor Constantine. Long before this date, December 25th was the day when Romans celebrated the feast of the winter solstice and the approaching spring. This feast was a celebration of the sun’s return. Only later did Christians adopt this pagan feast because they saw in Jesus the very sun that had come to illuminate the world from the darkness of their sins. Today, more than ever, it is important to reflect on the origin of this moment of celebration, when light is just what we need.
This year, among earthquakes, deadly wildfires, and contested elections, the world has had to confront a pandemic. While natural disasters perhaps touch us from afar, the pandemic has created fault lines not just in countries all over the world, but also in our hearts. Now, we are the ones who are called upon to be heroic protagonists; to wear masks as much to save ourselves as those around us; to keep a safe distance and not hug or kiss each other. Despite our efforts to hide behind a Christmas-themed face mask, the sadness in our eyes speaks for us.
All this inevitably contrasts with the so-called Christmas spirit, that time of year when everything ought to be filled with magic: families decorating the tree together, store windows filled with lights, brightly decorated streets full of people, holiday markets swarming with glitter and Christmas colours. We ought to be surrounded by a feeling of love and peace.
This may all still be true, but at the same time there will be a feeling of melancholy and want when, at midnight on Christmas Eve, we exchange greetings and good wishes and we think of our loved ones who are no longer with us on this special occasion. These feelings will be amplified this year, and make us more melancholic and gloomy. We may be far away from our loved ones because we live in “red zones,” or we are quarantined because we tested positive; maybe we lost someone we loved to the virus.
Nevertheless, this is an opportunity for us to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas and to give value to the things we only notice after we have lost them. Like the anticipation of exchanging gifts, the celebratory hugs and kisses, the unexpected message from someone we haven’t heard from in a long time, the noisy liveliness during lunch or dinner, a glass of wine, fireworks, the scent of the delicacies that are reserved for this time of year and, above all, being surrounded by the warmth and love of family. This is the light that will be missing this year, but we can still spark hope in our hearts, treasuring the beauty of Christmases past, and hope that this light will shine again soon.
Maria Pia Spadafora is a freelance writer living in Milan.